A person’s risk of developing the common heart disorder atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat, may be increased if they also have depression, according to new data.

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If you have depression, you may be at increased risk of A-fib.

These data were recently presented at the American Heart Association’s (AHA) 2018 scientific sessions on Epidemiology and Prevention | Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health, held in New Orleans, LA.

The AHA’s 2018 Heart and Stroke Statistical Update claims that 2.7 million people in the United States have atrial fibrillation (A-fib).

A-fib occurs when the upper chambers of the heart spasm, which therefore prevents them from moving blood into the heart’s lower chambers. When blood collects in the heart’s upper chamber it can clot, which may lead to stroke.

Figures from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) show that, across the U.S., more than 16 million adults experience depression. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during any 2-week period, 7.6 percent of people over the age of 12 have depression.

The causes of depression are not well understood, but scientists believe that psychosocial, environmental, behavioral, and genetic factors all play a role.

In the recent study, researchers from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles analyzed data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) project.

More than 6,600 U.S. citizens from a variety of ethnic groups took part in the MESA, and they were followed for 13 years. The participants were aged 62, on average, and they were free from heart disease at the start of the study.

Those who took antidepressants and who had the highest scores on a clinical screening test for depression were found to be at more than 30 percent increased risk for A-fib, compared with participants with low scores for depression and who did not take antidepressants.

The study was unable to pinpoint exactly how heart function may be disrupted by depression. But, the researchers hypothesize that inflammation and increased levels of some hormones could prevent the heart from being able to maintain a regular rhythm.

“Our findings,” explains lead investigator Dr. Parveen Garg, “identify a large portion of Americans who may be at an increased risk for developing atrial fibrillation and who may benefit from more targeted efforts to prevent this arrhythmia.”

If our findings are affirmed in future studies, especially those that formally assess for clinical depression, then we will need to see if treating depression may, in fact, lower the risk for atrial fibrillation.”

Dr. Parveen Garg

Dr. Garg and colleagues suggest that their findings bolster the conclusions of previous studies that have demonstrated a close link between mental health and heart health.

They recommend that both clinicians and patients who are affected by these illnesses should be made aware that evidence shows that people with depression are at increased risk of heart disease in general.

For instance, in 2016, Medical News Today reported on a study that found that treating participants with depression resulted in a reduced risk of heart disease in that group.

In that study, individuals who had been treated for depression had approximately the same level of cardiovascular risk as people who did not have depression.

And, last year, we looked at a study that suggested that people with both depression and a type of heart disease called coronary heart disease (CAD) are at increased risk of premature death.

The authors of that study found that being diagnosed with depression at any point after being diagnosed with CAD doubles the risk of premature death.